Biesmiellah, best Cape Malayan restaurant so far, in Bo-Kaap

If you are looking for a day-time halaal hidey-hole, this one alongside the Bo-Kaap’s most famous dog* may the best there is.  The interior is shrouded in one-way glass, allowing for a view of Bo-Kaap street-life that the life on the street can’t have of you.  Not only does the tinted glass give you the discretion you may need it also has the effect of cutting out much of the natural light, making for a rather dark space.

+27 (0)21 423 0850
Cnr Wale St & Pentz Rd
Cape Town

This dim lighting is cheered up by turning the inside into a sort of giant mirror.  The ceiling, while not strictly a mirror, is a reflective shiny metallic gold.  The pillars are mirrored.  As is one entire wall made up of a mirror, however the effect here is softened by two tapestries: one of Mecca and the other of another mosque.  A wood carving of the same has a similar effect.  Only the dark two-tone tiled floor lacks shine.  It is also quiet in here, save for some Arabic pop, for the only dining couple departs soon after my arrival.

I’m greeted by the charming menu-bearing Sanna.  She is one of those people with the ability to make you feel in control only for it to dawn on you later that she was really running the show.  Sanna points me towards Cape Malayan denningvleis (lamb stew cooked in tamarind), tomato bredie (tomatoey gently spiced stew, lamb in this case) and bobotie (baked mince, sweet with raisins, spiced with cloves and curry powder and topped with savoury custard).                   

Then Sanna mentions the non-Cape but Malayan pienang described as “a capricious blend of vegetables, beef cutlets, bay leaves and spices served with gesmoorde rijs (braised rice) – boiled then fried in olive oil with a secret blend of spices, nuts, raisins and almonds”.  She ignores other Cape Malayan and North Indian specialities such as breyani, rogan josh (lamb curry).  The card also promises real mutton curry which could be the Durban sort that I believe evolved from southern India. 

On a previous visit to Noon Gun Tea Room and Restaurant up the hill I didn’t think much of the denningvleis so trying that is an option, as is bobotie which I’ve always been indifferent towards.  I’m not sure that I have ever had a superb bredie before either but then I have never tried the smiley (sheep’s head) version, which is not on offer here.

Sanna’s enthusiasm for the denningvleis and bredie is the most robust.  I select the denningvleis but before that I tuck into a dhaltjie (deep fried chick pea flour chilli bite), which is on the fresh side and hot to the touch.  The sweet chilli dipping sauce provided I don’t care for but then I rarely enjoy this popular sauce, which rarely has any bite to it.

Along with the dhaltjie come the sambals for both this starter and the main: atchar (curry pickle), sweet and sour beetroot and a very ordinary green salad made marginally less ordinary by the addition of pineapple.  The turmeric-yellow-oily atchar is good: the highlight being the cauliflower and what I believe to be green mango.  It is laced with little mustard seeds. 

Then the lamb and its cousins arrive.  They consist of rice and the apparently traditional accompaniment to denningvleis: mash potato with nutmeg powder on top.  The rice is laced with caramelised onion, the odd clove and same of that favourite Indian Subcontinent fish and pudding spice: cardamom (elachi to Durbanites). 

The denningvleis is both sweet and tart with the tamarind fruit, along with coffee, one of the few popular food and beverage ingredients that come from Africa.  This is not the semi-processed blocks of the stoned fruit commonly available in South Africa but individual cherries of tamarind, pips and all.  Indeed some modern ‘convenience’ recipes call for sugar and vinegar to replace the sweet and sour of the fruit. 

The flavour of the lamb tjops in this stew is a roaring rich sweetie-meaty success.  The seven of you that regularly read these reviews will know that I don’t usually care for sugar or fruit cooked with my meat.  Here it is understated: they’ve got the balance right.  The sauce is oily for those that worry about fat for good reason and also for those that needlessly fret.  And for those that want a curry of sorts but are afraid of chilli there is no discernable heat to it.  My only criticism is that at R85.95 the chops are too boney on account of them being small. 

The tiny paper serviette glued to the cutlery is also insufficient for this dish (you need to use your hands to suck off the meat off the bone).  This is only a small concern because I didn’t come to this Cape Malay joint expecting a Western-style restaurant and neither should you. 

I have previously eaten the delicious mince and onion samoosas (samosa to Capetonians) from the attached Biesmiellah take away.  I assume they are the same ones you get in the restaurant.  A pleasant surprise is that this deep-fried snack is devoid of oil.  This may be achieved by the thicker pastry they use than is the norm.  The tasty-enough versions from Rosa’s Bakery in Shortmarket Street and the branch of Mariam’s Kitchen in St Georges Mall have paper-thin coverings but the fillings are oilier. 

The Biesmiellah butchery, also known as Schotschekloof Butchery sells mutton, possibly supplied by Skaapstad (a branded delivery lorry arrives) Most listed supermarkets don’t (they only retail lamb).  This will make Prince Charles, the world’s leading heritage farmer, pleased (see Mutton Renaissance Campaign).  But they will not debone a leg for roasting which is actually excellent news because the best gravy flavour comes from the bone.  You can’t beat roast mutton for potent flavour but you must let it hang outside the fridge in a cool place for at least a couple of days to allow it to tenderise.  The first person to let me know what the name of William the Conqueror’s chef was will get a free bottle of Graham Beck MCC Brut NV (purchased by me) sent to them.  Email address on “contact us” on the web page.   

Okay the bubbly has been won.  The answer I had was William de Mutton but the winner submitted the name of Lord Percy, William “Algernon” de Percy.  There are references to both being chef to William the Conqueror.  It is possible that they are the same person but this seems unlikely as according to my source William the Conqueror gave Lord Percy “a great fief” in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.  It is possible that Lord Percy was the chef before the invasion of England and De Mutton after.  Chef De Mutton according to the Financial Times was granted the property The Normans Estate further south in West Sussex.  According to the FT it was given to him “in the 11th century”.
“It stayed in the family for 800 years until a 19th-century De Mutton, a flamboyant gambler, threw its house keys into the pot during a late-night card game,” the FT stated.
Anyway it was long before my time and I believe details are sketchy at best. 

* I previously wrote about this dog in the Noon Gun review:
“I stop at the Biesmiellah Corner butchery and restaurant, where my car is parked.  The resident Staffie suns himself in the middle of the street, untroubled by a truck that passes inches from his dozing head.”

This manly dog, for he has certainly not been castrated, seems to belong to someone from the welding business below Biesmiellah.  Despite his muscle-bound physique, he is not aggressive and continues to lie on his back in the middle of the street.  Someone once said “happiness is a dog lying on its back in the sun,” or something like that. 

4/5 stars.  Only just.  Sneaks in with a rare example of authentic commercial Cape Malayan cooking.

Tom Robbins
Posted September 21, 2010

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2 Responses to “Biesmiellah, best Cape Malayan restaurant so far, in Bo-Kaap”

  1. Alfie says:

    Wow, sounds great – will be there next week!

  2. Nice review Tom – may I be your 8th review reader?!

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